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Good People Brings Out the Best

03/06/2011 03:11 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Many of the famous American plays feature memorable characters who embody a sort of either suffering or loss that reflects the era in which they live. These roles have been portrayed on the big screen by some of the best actors of the past century, as they inhabit these characters so brilliantly and naturally that it's hard to imagine anyone else playing them. These productions' successes draw heavily from the performances of their stars as conflicted, flawed, and sympathetic protagonists striving to live up to the American Dream, who often come up just short.

David Lindsay-Abaire's Good People carries on that American theatrical tradition. Frances McDormand injects the right mix of dignity and desperation into the lead role of Margie, someone who's just trying to survive with what she has during tough economic times in South Boston. It's a familiar story - the single mom struggling to get by and provide on a measly paycheck - but one that deeply resonates with the audience thanks to McDormand's refusal to let Margie become a charity case for the play's other characters or for her optimistic onlookers. Even once the play ends, with some uncertainty about how Margie's tale ends, the audience at the performance I attended let out an audible gasp, which showed just how much spectators had been hoping for Margie to come out on top.

Since McDormand appears in nearly every scene in the show, it's not such a wonder she is the main attraction. Still, her co-stars delivered, too, led by Tate Donovan in the role of Mike. Mike escaped his early, difficult background and goes on to become a doctor. Margie has contempt for Mike, but also a tinge of jealousy that shows more and more as the play progresses. McDormand expertly displays the different sides to Margie's character by appearing more meek and modest in one scene beside Mike, and more outraged and outspoken at other times. Yet, at all times, her decisions are understandable and defensible based on her circumstances, limits, and concerns.

McDormand's lines convey much of the story, but she's also helped out by masterful wardrobe and hairstyle switches that demonstrate how Margie - like most of us - adapts to her surroundings and the people she's addressing. Margie is consistently the same blunt, charged woman who can be abrupt and careless with her words, yet she can also recognize when she's gone too far and must step back with either an apology or an explanation. In under two hours, you really get to know this one character, and all of her strengths and weaknesses are displayed out in the open.

The play's drama is driven by how other characters deal with and respond to Margie's predicament - the play begins with her being laid off by the local dollar store. Some give her compassion, full of ideas about how she can get back on her feet. Thanks to them, promise remains possible. Others, however, are more skeptical and dismissing of Margie's problems, leaving her to fend for herself. Both reactions are perfectly natural; what's common between these ways of thinking is an underlying hope that Margie will eventually find her way out of a difficult position and disappointing life. That's what it's all about, anyway.